Abolishing the Executive Presidency: The forgotten system change

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One of the features of Sri Lankan politics is that it is very difficult to get consensus or agreement on any major issue that affects the country. Sometimes it is because there is a genuine difference of opinion on the efficacy of the policy or the decision in respect of which such consensus or agreement is sought to be achieved.

At times such failure to achieve consensus or agreement is because one or more political parties do not want their rivals to gain some advantage or political benefit.  

This inability to rise to the occasion as required by the National Interest was never more starkly evident as the response of political parties to the economic crisis that hit the country last year.

Despite the country being declared bankrupt by its own Government and the public reeling under an avalanche of shortages and price hikes, the political parties were unable to get together and form an Interim Government for a definite term of office based on a pre agreed programme of work to salvage and keep the economy on an even keel.

However, the strange irony of Sri Lankan politics is that even when there is national consensus on a vital matter, there is no effort or will to translate that consensus into action.

The case in point is the issue of the Executive Presidency. The SLFP and the left parties have been opposed to the Executive Presidency right from the outset. The UNP which introduced the Executive Presidency has long since come round to the view that the Executive Presidency must be abolished.

Currently the SJB and the JVP share the same view. While the SLPP, which is a comparatively new party, has not clearly articulated its position its leader Mahinda Rajapaksa has previously endorsed this position as Leader of the SLFP.

The people themselves have given mandates to abolish the Executive Presidency at the 1994 and 2015 Presidential Elections.

If there are still any doubting Thomas’ the country’s experience since 1978 should make them rethink. In 1978 when the Executive Presidency was first introduced the number of LTTE members could be counted on one’s fingertips. Until the LTTE was defeated in 2009 the LTTE grew exponentially and flourished bleeding the country.

The Executive Presidency’s inability to respond to the challenges posed by the LTTE for over 30 years until the armed conflict came to an end, resulted in a divided nation and a fragmented society.

And if any further argument was necessary to advocate the abolishing of the Executive Presidency the experience of the last three and a half years should provide the answer. The Executive Presidency has not only divided the country but has also driven the country to bankruptcy.

All the arguments against continuing with the Executive Presidency have been put forth ad nauseum by experts and political commentators. Its anti-democratic nature and its corrosive effect on state institutions have been experienced by the people over the years and do not require further repetition.

But one feature of the Executive Presidency that has not been sufficiently noted or discussed is its debilitating effect on the polity of the country. The Executive Presidency has had a “banyan tree effect” on the major political parties.

The Institution of the Executive Presidency does not allow or facilitate the emergence of second rung leaders who can slip into the shoes of their leaders when the time comes.

Prior to the enactment of the 1978 Constitution second rung leaders were easily identifiable in the political parties. The second in command in the UNP after Dudley Senanayake was J. R. Jayewardence.

When the former passed away the natural and unchallenged successor was J. R. Jayewardene. After him R.Premadasa took over.

After the assassination of R. Premadasa, the mantle of leadership passed on to Ranil Wickremesignhe. Who will takeover after Ranil Wickremesinghe is a question which the most die-hard UNPers would not be able to hazard a guess.

In the pre 1978 period the clear number two in the SLFP was Maithripala Senanayake with seniors like T.B. Ilangaratne also close behind. In the case of the SLPP, which is a post 1978 creation, after Mahinda Rajapaksa no clearly identifiable number two is visible on the scene.

Despite calls for new leadership within and without political parties the outlook is not promising. The Executive Presidency has put paid to all this.

Despite the national consensus with regard to the need to abolish the Executive Presidency and the loud and persistent calls for system change, there is no sign of any movement in this direction.at present.

The most likely argument that detractors may put forward is the lack of finances to hold a referendum to validate the abolishing of the Executive Presidency. However this is not insurmountable and can be easily overcome.

The first step would be for the political parties to agree on the content of the legislation that will result in the abolition of the Executive Presidency. Once that is done it can be agreed that the legislation will be presented to Parliament just prior to the Presidential or Parliamentary Elections and passed by a two third majority.

Once the Presidential or Parliamentary Elections are called the Referendum can be held simultaneously with such elections thus minimising the money that is to be expended.

This is one possible way. There may be even better options available to rid the country of the Executive Presidency now.

This is probably the most important and critical of the changes in the system that is required today. If the political parties do not get together to achieve this objective today they will fail in their duty to the country. ( javidyusuf@gmail.com )

courtsy sunday times

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